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Wisconsin power-line debate nears second round
UTILITIES:Hearings begin Tuesday on the proposed Arrowhead-Weston line from Hermantown to Wausau.
By Steve Kuchera
Duluth News Tribune
09/14/03


Supporters and critics of the controversial and once-approved Arrowhead-Weston power line are ready for a rematch when hearings convene this week.

Both sides are confident they'll prevail before the Public Service Commission of Wisconsin.

"We have a good solid case going for us," said Tom Kreager, president of Save Our Unique Lands, a grass-roots group that opposes the project. "If we get an honest, unbiased decision, the commission will be telling the American Transmission Company to pursue one of the other options."

American Transmission would operate the high-voltage line. Vice president Mark Williamson is equally confident the commission again will approve construction plans.

"Everyone agrees the costs are reasonable given the complexity of the project, and that's really the key issue," he said.

Commissioners approved Wisconsin segments of the proposed Hermantown to Wausau line in August 2001. They reopened the case after American Transmission reported in November 2002 that costs had soared, citing stricter environmental safeguards, higher land costs and a two-year project delay.

Projected costs rose from $165.7 million in 2001 to more than $400 million.

Tuesday, commissioners will begin a series of technical and public hearings to compare current costs with possible alternatives. The analysis will help determine whether Arrowhead-Weston remains an acceptable choice.

Earlier this year, commissioners hired consultant R.W. Beck to analyze cost factors. Beck set costs at $410.7 million -- reasonable considering the project's size and scope.

Beck, however, said building a line alongside the existing King-Weston line between the Twin Cities and Wausau would cost $26.3 million less than Arrowhead-Weston. SOUL's Kreager believes it's a preferable option.

"King-Weston is definitely better in both engineering and costs," he said.

Williamson disagrees, noting there are many unknowns about the King-Weston route that could easily escalate costs or block the project entirely.

Building high-voltage transmission lines often is a divisive and difficult process. People oppose Arrowhead-Weston fearing it will damage their health, their property values and the environment. Supporters say the line will help Wisconsin meet its growing energy demand and increase reliability for the regional high-voltage transmission network.

Wisconsin has only four high-voltage transmission lines (200 kilovolts or greater) connecting it to other states. Minnesota has 18.

On Tuesday, American Transmission released a report stating that Wisconsin needs to improve its ability to import and transport electricity. It would cost about $2.8 billion during the next 10 years to build all projects proposed in the report.

Kreager said Arrowhead-Weston should be considered in connection with the entire proposal.

"There is enough time to plan for a transmission line that would take care of reliability issues, that would be integrated with the long-term transmission planning that ATC is already looking at and that would fit into the solution better," he said.

Williamson disagrees that Wisconsin can wait longer to add more connections to another state.

"This line should have been in service in '97, and until we get it in service, we have significant parts of the state that are in jeopardy of having a blackout," he said.

SOUL's expert witnesses will testify that, rather than increasing the reliability of the region's transmission system, Arrowhead-Weston would actually be one of the first power lines to fail in a blackout resembling the August failure that hit eastern states and provinces.

"He's just plain wrong in our view," Williamson said. "These are conclusions he's making without the benefit of looking at it."

The 345-kilovolt Arrowhead-Weston would carry 600 to 750 megawatts of electricity, enough to power about 180,000 to 225,000 homes.

While commissioners haven't set a deadline to make their decision, "they do want to move as quickly as possible," PSC spokeswoman Linda Barth said.

"If they approve it yet this year, we will be back doing our land acquisition processes," Williamson said. "That takes a little over a year. We're hoping to be able to start construction in the latter part of '04."

Even if American Transmission receives state approval, much remains to be done before construction begins. The company still needs wetland permits from Wisconsin regulators, several counties oppose the project and will not allow it to cross their property, and the company hasn't received National Park Service permission to cross the Namekagon River.

"We're still writing the environmental impact statement," said Jill Medland, a planning specialist with the Saint Croix National Scenic River. "We expect to publish a draft environmental impact statement for public review about the end of October."

The public will have 60 days to comment on the draft statement.


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